Leafcutter ants on corn

Leafcutter ants attacking corn | western Buenos Aires Prov., Argentina

North American corn farmers certainly have their share of insect pests to worry about. Between corn borer, earworm, armyworm, and rootworm, there isn’t much of the plant that isn’t vulnerable to attack by at least one of these insects. Argentina corn farmers have all this and more—have you ever seen ants attacking corn? I took these photographs yesterday in a corn field in western Buenos Aires Province showing leafcutter ants dining on the developing kernels of late-planted corn. Okay, “dining” may not be the proper word, as they are not actually eating the kernels, but rather harvesting them to bring them back to their “hormiguera” (ant nest) for cultivation of the fungi on which they feed. The four pairs of spines on the pro-mesonotum and narrow distal antennal segments suggest this is a species of Acromyrmex, three species of which are mentioned as pests of corn in Argentina (A. lundii, A. striatus, and A. lobicornis). Of these, the individuals in these photos seem to best match AntWeb’s photos of Acromyrmex lundii, but that is just my guess.

Acromyrmex sp. poss. lundii?

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2012

Predator or Prey?

Ellipsoptera hamata lacerata | Dixie Co., Florida

Everyone knows that tiger beetles are predators, but look closely at the underside of the head of this female Ellipsoptera hamata lacerata (Gulf Beach Tiger Beetle), photographed in a coastal marsh in Dixie Co., Florida earlier this month.  See the ant head attached by its mandibles to the base of the tiger beetle’s left maxillary palpus?  Detached ant heads latched onto the palp or antenna of a tiger beetle are a fairly common sight—Pearson and Vogler (2001) show the head of an ant attached to the antenna of Eunota togata (Cloaked Tiger Beetle), and Pearson et al. (2006) show one attached to the antennae of Cicindela formosa (Big Sand Tiger Beetle).  I’ve also photographed Cylindera celeripes (Swift Tiger Beetle) with an ant head attached to its antenna.  Pearson and Vogler (2001) and Pearson et al. (2006) both suggest that the ant heads are the result of predation attempts by groups of ants attempting to overpower and kill the tiger beetle, making the ants the predators and the tiger beetles the prey.

Note ant head attached by its mandibles to the base of the tiger beetle's left maxillary palpus.

Although some ants are well known for their predatory horde behavior, I’m not sure I buy this as an explanation for the common occurrence of ant heads attached to tiger beetles.  Tiger beetles themselves often prey on ants, and while I have seen numerous tiger beetles with ant heads attached to them, I have never seen one actually being overpowered by ants (scavenging an already dead tiger beetle, yes—but not overpowering and killing one).  Moreover, the ant heads are nearly always attached to the base of an antenna or palpus—right next to the tiger beetle’s mouth, and almost never on more distal parts of the antennae or other parts of the body.  If the ants were attempting to prey on the tiger beetle, wouldn’t they also (if not even more commonly) be found attached to the tiger beetle’s legs or soft intersegmental membranes?  And how would the ants have come to be decapitated while in the act of attempting to overpower the beetle?  I suggest it is more likely that the ants were prey, latching onto the nearest part of their killer’s body in a last ditch attempt to avoid their inevitable fate.  The antennal and palpal base are about the only tiger beetle body parts that would be within reach of an ant in a tiger beetle’s toothy grasp.  While the rest of the ant was consumed, the head remained because it was firmly attached to the beetle.

I realize that an identification based only on the detached head of an ant may be difficult, but if one is possible it would be appreciated.  The ant head shown in Pearson and Vogler (2001) was identified as Polyergus sp.

REFERENCES:

Pearson, D. L., C. B. Knisley and C. J. Kazilek. 2006. A Field Guide to the Tiger Beetles of the United States and Canada. Oxford University Press, New York, 227 pp.

Pearson, D. L. and A. P. Vogler.  2001. Tiger Beetles: The Evolution, Ecology, and Diversity of the Cicindelids.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York, 333 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Bichos Argentinos #10 – Friday Formicine

One of the insects I saw abundantly during my visit last month to La Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur (Buenos Aires, Argentina) was this species of black ant that looks well enough like one of our typical North American species. They were quite common, seen on virtually every plant that I examined closely. I made a few feeble attempts at photographs in the early part of the day, but desire faded quickly in the face of their frenetic behavior and occurrence in exclusively tough-to-photograph situations.  I mean, they’re just ants!¹ Around midday I noticed that many of the flower heads of the pampas grass clumps in the area had at least one ant perched in this interesting head-down, abdomen-curled forward position – I tried to capture the situation, but even this best of the bunch turned out, well… boring!

¹ Just kidding Alex and James!

Finally, late in the day, I saw one crawling on the trunk of a recently fire-killed tree that I was inspecting in (futile) hopes of encountering adult jewel beetles or longhorned beetles that would have been attracted to this newly available resource.  This was the easy-to-photograph situation I was waiting for, and the dark color of the charred bark brought out nicely the hairs on the body despite both ant and bark being nearly the same color.

I’m a beetle guy, and normally I would be happy to just call this Formica nigra and move on.  Whatever possessed me to even begin the process of trying to identify this particular ant is beyond me (maybe I’ve actually learned something after a couple of years of reading Myrmecos!).  It had the look of our North American Camponotus, so I entered “Camponotus Argentina” into Google Images and found this photo of Camponotus mus, taken by our friend Alex in nearby Santa Fe, Argentina, near the top of the very first page.  Now, I realize that closely (and even distantly) related species can look quite similar (especially to the untrained eye), but everything about this ant looks right – the bulbous-abdomen, the shape of the thorax, the matt black color, and the velvety yellowish pilosity of the abdomen. A little searching on the name reveals this species to be quite abundant in Argentina, where it goes by the common names “hormiga de madera” (wood ant) and, not surprisingly, “hormiga carpintera” (carpenter ant). Alex? James? Did I get it right?

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Bichos Argentinos #2 – Pseudomyrmex sp.

Pseudomyrmex sp. (twig ant) | Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur, Buenos Aires, Argentina

One of the insects I tracked at La Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur in Buenos Aires, Argentina last weekend was this twig ant in the genus Pseudomyrmex.  I had noticed these slender, wasp-like ants previously on trips to the U.S. desert southwest, but it wasn’t until I read a couple of recent posts about them at Myrmecos and 6legs2many that I knew specifically what they were. 

Alex characterizes these ants as “delightfully gentle, quirky little insects.”  What he didn’t mention is how frenetic and unceasing they are as they forage amongst the shrubbery.  I must have taken a couple dozen shots of several individuals over the course of the day, deleting every single one on the spot because I couldn’t get a clear, close, focused, nicely composed, unobstructed image.  Their habit of crawling rapidly along slender twigs is problematic enough, with little opportunity to brace the camera against anything steady and spend time composing the shot.  Add to that the frequently thorny nature of the trees they were roaming and their annoying habit of darting around to the backside of whatever twig they were on whilst trying to follow them in the viewfinder, and I almost decided I’d met my match and could do without the shot.  In the latter part of the day I encountered this individual, and as I already had my 65mm lens mounted I decided to give it another try.  I can’t say that I actually figured out the secret to getting the shot, but rather that I just lucked out and happened to have hit the shutter release at just the right moment – and with reasonable focus – as I tracked the ant along the branch on which it was crawling.  It was the only shot of one of these ants that stayed on the card that day.

The genus is huge, with 209 species occurring primarily throughout the Neotropics.  As a result, it would be foolish for me to even attempt a species ID.  Still, I can’t help noticing its great resemblance to this photo of Pseudomyrmex phyllophilus, taken by Alex in – you guessed it, Buenos Aires, Argentina.  I’ll wait for the correction, but in the off-chance that I’m right I think I deserve points on somebody’s scorecard!

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Brazil Bugs #15 – Formiga-membracídeos mutualismo

Of the several insect groups that I most wanted to see and photograph during my trip to Brazil a few weeks ago, treehoppers were near the top of the list.  To say that treehoppers are diverse in the Neotropics is certainly an understatement – South America boasts an extraordinary number of bizarre and beautiful forms that still, to this day, leave evolutionary biologists scratching their heads.  The development of this amazing diversity is a relatively recent phenomenon (thinking geological scale here), as there are no known membracid fossils prior to Oligo-Miocene Dominican and Mexican amber – well after the early Cretaceous breakup of Gondwanaland split the globe into the “Old” and “New” Worlds.  With its origins apparently in South America, numerous groups continued to spring forth – each with more ridiculous pronotal modifications than the last and giving rise to the dazzling diversity of forms we see today.  Even North America got in the evolutionary act, benefiting from northern dispersal from South America’s richly developing fauna via temporary land bridges or island stepping stones that have existed at various times during the current era and giving rise to the almost exclusively Nearctic tribe Smiliini (whose species are largely associated with the continent’s eastern hardwood forests).  Only the subfamily Centrotinae, with its relatively unadorned pronotum, managed to successfully disperse to the Old World, where it remains the sole representative taxon in that hemisphere.  With a few notable exceptions, treehoppers have virtually no economic importance whatsoever, yet they enjoy relatively active study by taxonomists, evolutionists, and ecologists alike – due almost completely to the bizarreness of their forms and unique mutualistic/subsocial behaviors.

I did manage to find a few species of treehoppers during the trip (a very primitive species being featured in Answer to ID Challenge #4 – Aetalion reticulatum), and of those that I did find the nymphs in this ant-tended aggregation on a small tree in the rural outskirts of Campinas (São Paulo State) were perhaps the most striking in coloration and form.  Most were jet black, although a few exhibited fair amounts of reddish coloration, and all exhibited sharply defined white bands of wax and long erect processes on the pronotum, mesonotum, and abdomen.  I’ve seen a fair number of treehopper nymphs, but I did not recognize these as something I had seen before, and given the incomplete state of immature taxomony I feared an identification might not be possible.  Still (and I know this is probably beginning to sound like a broken record), I gave it the old college try.

I usually like to start simple and get more creative if the results aren’t satisfactory, so I went to my old friend Flickr and simply typed “Membracidae” as my search term.  Predictably, pages and pages of results appeared, and I began scanning through them to see if any contained nymphs at all resembling what I had.  After just a few pages, I encountered this photo with very similar-looking nymphs, and although no identification beyond family was indicated for the photo, I recognized the lone adult sitting with the nymphs as a member of the tribe Aconophorini – a diverse group distinguished from other treehoppers by their long, forward-projecting pronotal horn.  Luck was with me, because I happen to have a copy of the relatively recent revision of this tribe by Dietrich and Deitz (1991).  Scanning through the work, I learned that the tribe is comprised of 51 species assigned to three genera: Guayaquila (22 spp.), Calloconophora (16 spp.), and Aconophora (13 spp.).  The latter two genera can immediately be dismissed, as ant-interactions have not been recorded for any of the species in those two genera – clearly the individuals that I photographed were being tended by ants.  Further, the long, laterally directed apical processes of the pronotal horn, two pairs of abdominal spines, and other features also agree with the characters given for nymphs of the genus Guayaquila.  In looking at the species included in the genus, a drawing of a nymph that looked strikingly similar to mine was found in the species treatment for G. gracilicornis.  While that species is recorded only from Central America and northern South America, it was noted that nymphs of this species closely resemble those of the much more widely distributed G. xiphias, differing by their generally paler coloration.  My individuals are anything but pale, and reading through the description of the late-instar nymph of the latter species found every character in agreement.  A quick search of the species in Google Images was all that was needed to confirm the ID (at least to my satisfaction). 

In a study of aggregations of G. xiphias on the shrub Didymopanax vinosum (Araliaceae) in southeastern Brazil, Del-Claro and Oliveira (1999) found an astounding 21 species of associated ant species – a far greater diversity than that reported for any other ant-treehopper system.  The most frequently encountered ant species were Ectatomma edentatum, Camponotus rufipes, C. crassus, and C. renggeri, and after perusing the images of these four species at AntWeb I’m inclined to believe that the ants in these photos represent Camponotus crassus (although I am less confident of this ID than the treehoppers – corrections welcome!).  The authors noted turnover of ant species throughout the day in a significant portion of the treehopper aggregations that they observed, which they suggest probably reflects distinct humidity and temperature tolerances among the different ant species and that might serve to reduce interspecific competition among ants at treehopper aggregations.  Since treehopper predation and parasitism in the absence of ant mutualists can be severe, the development of multispecies associations by G. xiphias results in nearly “round-the-clock” protection that can greatly enhance their survival.

Update 3/3/11, 9:45 a.m.:  My thanks to Chris Dietrich at the Illinois Natural History Survey, who provided me in an email exchange some clarifying comments on the origins and subsequent dispersal of the family.  The first paragraph has been slightly modified to reflect those comments.

REFERENCES:

Del-Claro, K. and P. S. Oliveira. 1999. Ant-Homoptera interactions in a Neotropicai savanna: The honeydew-producing treehopper, Guayaquila xiphias (Membracidae), and its associated ant fauna on Didymopanax vinosum (Araliaceae). Biotropica 31(1):135–144.

Dietrich, C. H. and L. L. Deitz.  1991.  Revision of the Neotropical treehopper tribe Aconophorini (Homoptera: Membracidae).  North Carolina Agricultural Research Service Technical Bulletin 293, 134 pp.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Brazil Bugs #11 – Formigas cortadeiras

This week is Army Ant Week, and while Alex Wild’s stunning photographs of this diverse and charismatic group reign supreme, some of the cooler bug bloggers are nevertheless getting into the spirit of things with army ant posts of their own.  I have no such photos, but I’m hoping I can sneak onto the bandwagon with these images of leafcutting ants that I photographed last month in Campinas, Brazil.

These were among the first insects I saw during the trip once I got a bit of free time to walk the hotel grounds.  Watching them crawl along the lower edge of the hotel wall was a welcome sight, as nothing says “tropics” to me more than columns of these ants carrying their bits of leaves back to the nest for use in their hidden fungus farms.  While taxonomically they may be unrelated to army ants, their precise single file marches in dutiful service to the colony are as military as it gets.  Army ants may have the jaws, but leaf-cutters have spines – they don’t just carry weapons, they are the weapons!

The thing I like most about leaf-cutter ants is that they are one of the few ant groups that I feel confident enough to hazard an attempt at identification.  Several genera comprise the group, and most people who are at all familiar with them think of the genus Atta first.  However, I recalled reading something on Alex’s blog about spines as a diagnostic character for attine ant genera – sure enough, in this post Alex explains how species in the genus Atta have two pairs of spines on the promesonotum, while those in the genus Acromyrmex bear three pairs.  On this basis, I’ll go out on a limb and declare the individuals in these photos as Acromyrmex sp. (of course, which species is another story – James?  Alex?).  If I’m proved right, it will confirm the worthwhileness of all my blog trolling.  If I am wrong – well, there’s still nothing wrong with idle entertainment.

Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

Brazil Bugs #9 – Formiga hostil


I found this ant crawling over the blossoms of the Ixora shrubs on the grounds of my hotel in Campinas (São Paulo state). Normally I wouldn’t even try to identify a South American ant, but the individual quickly and easily keyed out in the recent revision of North American Formicidae to Formica nigra – apparently a very wide-ranging species!¹

¹ Seriously, I would welcome input from any myrmecophiles out there on the actual identity of this species.

As I started taking some photographs, she seemed to take note of my presence.
With each shot, she seemed to become increasingly more irritated.
Irritation soon gave way to outright hostility.
In short order, the meaning was all too clear – “Stay away from my flower!”
Copyright © Ted C. MacRae 2011

The joys of ecological restoration

Indian paintbrush and lousewort now dominate patches of SNR

I moved to Missouri in the summer of 1988, having experienced 8 years of generous support of my family’s livelihood by my research on the infamous imported fire ants of the US Southeast, and their relatives in South America. When I arrived in the Midwest, I  hoped to land a job as an insect taxonomist in a university or museum, a goal of mine since before entering college. But this dream was one that even before moving to Missouri was dimming, and then receded ever further from the realm of possibility for me (and for traditionally trained taxonomists, generally), once here. So, I began to re-think what I might do with my work life. It would be something, I hoped, that would make some use of all the course work (mostly in entomology and botany) and research (on ant systematics) I had done during my 24 years (!) of getting educated and four additional years as a post-doc. As or more important, whatever job I ended up in would somehow have to allow me to share my life-long love of nature with others.

A museum drawer of ant specimens mounted for taxonomic study, the ants no doubt frustrated by the years of inattention they have received as I have tended to the duties of my day job.

Early in my residence in eastern Missouri, I made the acquaintance of the naturalist at a 2500-acre (1000-hectare) nature reserve outside of St. Louis. Shaw Arboretum, as it was then known, is country cousin to the world-renowned Missouri Botanical Garden, and is named after the Garden’s founder Henry Shaw. Long story short, in the summer of 1990 the naturalist mentioned to me that he would soon retire, the position would become available, and that I ought to apply. So I applied, and was hired as the arboretum’s naturalist in January 1991.

A dolomite glade plant endemic to a few counties in eastern Missouri, this leatherflower was established at SNR in the 1930s, but expanded exponentially after prescribed fire was introduced in the 1990s. Here, an ant characteristic of glades and dry prairies forages on the flower.

When I came on board, the “Arboretum” had mostly ceased to be an arboretum (a formal collection of trees for display, breeding and research), and most folks seemed unable to either pronounce or define the word. Indeed we learned, through a public survey, that the strange name and the stone wall in the front actually dissuaded people unfamiliar with it from entering! Yes, there were a few patches of exotic trees scattered around the property, especially in the conifer collection near the front entrance know as the “Pinetum”, but ever since the Garden had decided around 1930 that it would not, afterall move all of its horticultural operations to this then very rural site (the original intent of its purchase), formal arboretum and botanical garden type activities had been few and far between, and the site began gradually reverting from abandoned farmland to a wilder sort of place, as well as a haven for native biota. Thus, on its 75th anniversary in the year 2000, Shaw Arboretum was renamed Shaw Nature Reserve.

Colony-founding queen bumblebees are the primary actors in loosening pollen with ultrasound from shootingstar anthers, and distributing it about the plant population.

Around that time, my title changed too, to “Restoration Biologist”. The job is multifaceted; presenting public programs and classes on various aspects of the site’s natural history, writing and reviewing articles, acting as liaison to the vigorous regional group of academic ecologists who use the site for research and teaching, a very intermittent personal research program on ants resulting in sporadic publications, and last but certainly not least, ecological restoration.

Ecological restoration, in the broad sense, consists of  two primary practices:

  • Restoration of a natural community to structure and species composition presumed characteristic of an  ;;earlier condition (however arbitrary or ill-defined).
  • Reconstruction of regional, native-like habitats, de novo, using locally acquired native plant propagules in the appropriate settings of soil, hydrology,  slope aspect and climate.

Both  require essentially perpetual, follow-up maintenance, including invasive species control, mowing, haying, grazing, selective timber removal, species richness enhancements, and prescribed burning. All of these have many variations and nuances in application, and there can be impassioned arguments about their implementation in the literature, at conferences, and in forums and blogs on ecological restoration, native plants, butterflies, beetles, etc..

An ecologically conservative lily ally of undisturbed moist soil habitats now thrives in prairie plantings at the Reserve.

Attitudes about ecological restoration vary, among practitioners, among sociologists and philosophers, and in the general public. One broad attitudinal schism lies along the lines of  whether ecological restoration activities are some sort of primitivist, grand-scale gardening, or do they represent ecologically valid landscape conservation? Another question some pose is to what extent we should interfere with “natural successsion”? Be this as it may be, most people with functioning sensory perception agree the results can be very beautiful. The loveliness of the mosaic of colors in the herb layer of a spring woodland is inarguable, especially so after it has had its woody stem density reduced, and had the leaf litter burned off, to allow more light, rain and seeds to the soil surface — even where there is genuine concern about damage to invertebrate assemblages residing in forest duff. A waving meadow of grasses and flowers in a tallgrass prairie planting, intended to replace just a few of the tens of millions of acres of this ecosystem that have succumbed to the plow, has its own grand beauty, though its per-square-meter species density of plant species remains less than half that of a native prairie remnant and it is dominated mainly by habitat-generalist insect species rather than prairie specialists, even after 30 or more years.

A self-introduced grassland ant forages among a thriving, human-introduced population of this wet prairie gentian.

The smaller, daily rewards of restoration, to the practicing ecological restorationist and to those who visit his or her work, are many. Over 20 years, in the opened-up woods, restored glades and prairie and wetland plantings at SNR, I repeatedly have enjoyed the “sudden appearance” and increase in populations of ant species (of course) that I never observed during my early years of working at SNR (then scouring it for purposes of preparing an annotated ant list). The feeling I get upon discovering that a grouping of shooting star, royal catchfly, bunch flower or bottle gentian plants, are in bloom at a site where I spread their seeds five, seven, or even ten years earlier is a bit like that one feels when a child is born. The spontaneous colonization of SNR grassland plantings by prairie ragged orchid never fails to amaze me. Bird, or frog, or katydid and cricket songs in a former crop field or pasture, as the “restored” vegetation fills in and matures, is as pleasing to my ear as it is to my soul.

A few days ago (in early July), the director of the Reserve came to my office asking if I had noticed a purply pink, “possibly orchid” flower growing on a section of a berm (planted with native vegetation) in our 32-acre wetland complex. I had not been in the area recently, but headed right out to see what it was. Joyously, and not a little surprised, I learned that seeds of the purple fringeless orchid, sowed at a location nearby 17 years previously, had washed to this site, taken root, and as terrestrial orchids are wont to do, flowered after so many years!

The black-legged greater meadow katydid thrives in low areas and near bodies of water in SNR

The prairie ragged orchid began to appear in old fields and prairie plantings where prescribed burning occurs at SNR. It has not been seen in fields maintained exclusively by mowing or haying.

The purple fringeless orchid surprised the restorationist and St. Louis area botanists by flowering in the SNR wetland area 17 years after the original sowing.

Copyright © James Trager 2010

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